Lula da Silva has been sentenced to more than nine years’ imprisonment for corruption and money laundering. He can still appeal the sentence and be absolved. I don’t think he’ll manage that. Yet, Lula continues to be the most popular politician in Brazil. And it’s not a question of Brazilians doubting that the former president profited illegally from his job but that they don’t care. To most of them, it’s immaterial.
The same is happening in Argentina with Mrs. Cristina Kirchner. The proof of her corruption, her husband’s, her son’s and her associates’ is overwhelming, but that old graffito of the 1950s supporting the founder of her sect holds true: “Gay or thief, we want Perón”. Peronism thus reacted to a doctored photograph that showed U.S. boxing champion Archie Moore sodomizing Juan Domingo Perón. Today, a new graffito (I don’t know if in favor or against) has alighted on the walls of Buenos Aires: “Thief or cretin, we love Cristina.”
Mexico is another example of the general indifference to corruption. A few days ago, the National Institute of Statistics published a study that says that, on the average, Mexican business companies pay 672 dollars a year in bribes to dishonest officials. The total payoff is $88 million. Still, the Mexicans (though increasingly fewer) back the P.R.I., the ruling party, while making jokes about the huge corruption of a group that, for more than 70 years, has plundered the country, even as it hands out crumbs, engages in public works and insists on its revolutionary rhetoric.
The exceptions are Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica. I’m not saying that no corruption exists in these countries but that there’s no impunity, and the citizenry does not put up with the dishonesty of politicians or functionaries. There is moral sanction and adverse electoral consequences, to the point where sometimes people submit false proof and testimony to destroy the reputation of honorable persons and thus exclude them from the political game.
In any case, these exceptions serve to rebut the idea that there’s something fatal in Ibero-American culture that leads us inevitably into corruption. Chile is an Andean country, like Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, but — while these five nations, linked by history and geography, exhibit a high degree of putrefaction, especially Chavist Venezuela, where the regime has pitilessly sacked the public coffers — in Chile, the government of Mrs. Bachelet is convulsed by the deals made by her son using privileged information, while Pinochet was totally discredited (even in the eyes of his supporters) after the news emerged, post mortem, that he was not an honest dictator.
The case in Uruguay deserves study. That society’s ethnic composition is similar to Argentina’s, and during the colonial period it was part of the same political unity. Nevertheless, Uruguay’s public management is reasonably honest and transparent, while its big neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, are real sewers, be they ruled by the left or the right.
In Central America, the phenomenon is repeated. According to Transparency International, an institution that measures the perception of corruption, Costa Rica is by far the most honest nation in a very varied region that also comprises Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, five countries plagued by major scandals, with former presidents in prison or in self-imposed exile, as in the case of Salvadoran Mauricio Funes, who sought asylum in Nicaragua, a country ruled by Daniel Ortega, who didn’t have a penny when he came to power and is now considered to be one of the richest presidents on the isthmus.
Maybe the awakening of an independent judiciary will achieve the miracle of making our countries decent. It would be an ethical revolution begun at the top, because the base is rotted by patronage and moral indifference. That’s what happens in Brazil, where Judge Sergio Moro has confronted Lula da Silva, while Attorney General Rodrigo Janot has brought charges of “passive corruption” against Michel Temer, the current president after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, also removed from her post for breaking the budgetary laws of the republic.
The next step is for societies to internalize the lesson that the judicial system is teaching everywhere. While the masses don’t understand that the strength of the republics lies in the proper functioning of the institutions and the need for everyone to obey the law, our countries’ economies won’t really take off and won’t see the virtues of peaceful coexistence. The damage inflicted by corruption is much greater than the resources stolen. It is devastating.
Published in Spanish by El Blog de Montaner on Sunday July 16th, 2017